Cracks In The Mirror : Does Klout Make You Mad?

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Much has been written about our mental health in the digital era, from Internet Digital Addiction to Mobile Phone Social Media obsessions and the negative causes and consequences of cyber bullying (for both the victims and the protagonists).

Like most media, the internet transmits an image of our collective selves and, as it does so, it distorts the image in it’s own peculiar way, influenced by the way that we interact with it and it’s component parts.

Advertising is a component part. It’s the billion-dollar lifeblood that pays for almost everything we use and consume on the Internet.   As we all make the shift to doing most of our digital “stuff” socially and on the mobile, advertising dollars are following our eyeballs.

With a smartphone in hand, a selection of our friends, acquaintances, favorite content and favoured brands are always with us, randomly waiting to be interacted with (or simply browsed), whenever and wherever we choose.  Be it at workon the train or on the loo, mobile/social connectivity increasingly fills the gaps in all our lives.  More and more of our real-life lives are being spent, reflected, stored and displayed virtually.

When our activity is reflected online, it becomes measurable. For brands who truly “get it”, this new environment gets us all a step closer to the marketing promised land, where advertising disappears and grows-up to become perfectly targeted and timely information: non-intrusive, real-time, interactive, context aware, relevant and personal.

But we’re not quite there yet.

Scores 

For now, attempts by the marketing community to understand us by tapping into this deep new well of social data are focused on fairly crude and simplistic metrics.

One popular activity is identification of influencers – people identified as best able to persuade their friends and followers to buy a product or service. Think TV’s Oprah Effect (product endorsements) measured at social internet scale, across the billions of people participating on social networks.

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Over the last decade, Google has become the world’s default search engine by carefully ranking websites. Now, influence score sites such as KloutKred and peerindex are vying to become the default service for ranking of people. They rate our individual “influence” on our friends by aggregating metrics (followers, connections, frequency of activity, responses etc) from a variety of Social media sites sites (facebook, twitter, LinkedIn etc) and then give each of us a “score”.

Their hope is that these public scores will then be used by marketers to better target likely advocates of whatever it is that they are hoping to sell.

As with any early stage technology, the Influence score business is changing rapidly and has some methodological growing pains such as buying of fake friends & followers  to enhance perceived social standing and “influence”.

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There’s also an issue with attempts to manipulate influence scores prompted by the secrecy surrounding the scoring methodologies used (e.g. the number of Pinterest followers you have may not count but tweeting a restaurant tip from FourSquare may count double). All this leads to a flurry of guessing and second guessing worthy of a Monty Python sketch:

Now please don’t misunderstand me, Influence scores are very useful in the right context (i.e. for social media and media professionals) and I admire any start-up that’s exploring what’s possible at the edges of a rapidly evolving medium.  Fixes for some of the marketing issues are evolving rapidly. More enlightened Internet marketeers are weighing in with common sense commentary and Social Media tools are emerging which shine light on fakes and forgeries.

There’s a broader concern though.

The aim of the influence score is to go beyond what Google does when ranking inanimate web pages. Whether we opt-in or not, selected social interactions are crystallized into a condensate of our digital personality and presented as a single public influence score for every socially active entity: brands, governments – and everyday people. You. Me. Everyone.

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So, how will the process of creating a secretly calculated but public score for everyone effect our collective mental health?

Measuring Our Social Well-being 

“The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.”
― Alain de BottonStatus Anxiety

In the 1950’s Social Psychologist, Marie Jahoda, was interested in how periods of unemployment effected mental health.

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She identified five factors that influence our day-to-day social well-being:  

From these she identified measures of “Ideal Mental Health”, listed below. Try reading through this list while thinking about your own use of Facebook, or that of a friend, it should be an interesting exercise!

  • Do you have a realistic perception of who you are – your true selves?
  • Do have a general feeling of acceptance?
  • Do you have voluntary control over your own behaviour (or at least feel that you do)?
  • Do you have a true and realistic perception of the world(s) we live in?
  • Can you attain deep relationships and share affection with others?
  • How productive are you within the social groups that you engage in?

Social Media has the power to both impede and greatly uplift our social health in all of these areas.  Moreover, as a distorting mirror, it amplifies these effects across entire communities of inter-connected people (there are some wonderful examples of both in Tan Siok Siok‘s crowd-sourced documentary Twittamentary).

Influence scores like Klout, Kred and PeerIndex add additional layers of commentary, abstraction and then, by ranking, imply competition. So whilst they seek to provide clarity, they also add yet more distortion to the socialmedia reflection of ourselves.  Creating a publicly visible score of everyone’s social “worth”, naturally has an influence on behaviour and creates feedback loops, further changing the score. For some individuals scoring has the potential to endlessly change behaviour based on arbitrary rules to stay “winning” – not always a very healthy place to be!  Remember the deranged and drug addled Charlie Sheen “winning” meme last year?

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A central theme in Jahoda’s work concerns the ongoing tension between our ability to balance constancy (i.e. our ability to be grounded and true to who we are) and change (i.e. being adaptable and open to the views and perspectives of others).

As the internet matures and becomes seamlessly intertwined with everything that we do, it should ideally have the structure to assist and reinforce our ability to attain and maintain this balance.

So, will Klout and similar services make you mad? No, not on their own. The danger is in the direction in which they might take us. It’s people that form the fabric of the internet. Collectively, we enable it to be an amazing medium, which many believe is accelerating human development.  A good and obvious guiding principle when designing any new service should be to ensure that the social mental well-being of users, like you,  is sacrosanct.

Next up: Cracks In The Mirror : BigData and Harvesting Your Identity

N.B. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andys_camera/1004408512/

Armstrong Vs The Real Winners In Performance Enhancement : Us

An Australian public library has just announced (tongue in cheek) that it is about to move all works about Lance Armstrong to their fiction section.

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The Armstrong scandal is, of course, a very sorry tale of an immensely talented and determined athlete who chose to forget that winning isn’t winning if you break the rules. Rules set an equal and fair (if arbitrary) baseline for competition. Taking a  performance enhancing drug to create an unfair advantage is cheating.

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However, rules help illustrate a much bigger story of performance enhancement.  Over time  rules – and the athletic performances they enable – provide an interesting measure of how our species is steadily being physically enhanced. Evolving itself.

A straight forward measure for any sport is world records.  In every sport, each new generation of athletes achieves world records and betters the generation before.

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This progress isn’t simply because athletes now train harder or are more talented. It’s a symptom of innate and rapid improvements in our collective physical well being. A reflection of mass human enhancement. In the past century we’ve experienced vast improvements in:

  • Nutrition – the availability of nutritious and balanced diets throughout the year
  • Shelter and sanitation – reducing disease and enhancing psychological well being
  • Improved research and education – not simply better physical sports facilities for kids but also advances in our understanding of – and attitudes about – what makes us all physiologically and psychologically better.
  • Most importantly, Healthcare – advances such as the availability of antibiotics (since 1932) and vaccines have had an immense impact on health and well being over the last four or five generations, exemplified by global life expectancy stats.

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Couch potatoes aside, all of these factors have led to a fitter and generally healthier population which has had a positive knock on effect on athletic endeavours.

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In 1935, Jesse Owens broke 4 world records in a single 45 minute period. He smoked 30 cigarettes a day, it was the era before antibiotics.  How much could he have beaten his own world records by if he was born today, in 2013, rather than 1913?

The process is ongoing.  China is lifting a billion people out of poverty in just a couple of generations. Other countries such as Indonesia and India (another couple of billion people by 2050) are slowly following. As people escape poverty the first items purchased tend to be better family nutrition and hygiene & healthcare products (followed by communications in the form of a mobile phone – increasingly likely to be internet connected).

What’s perhaps more intriguing: very recent advances in our understanding of epigenetics (the way DNA is controlled by our environment) suggest that these enhancements to our collective physical well being can be inherited by future generations.

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Sporting rules will also change over time as was highlighted in last summers London Olympics. Oscar “blade runner” Pistorius, is a double amputee who runs on carbon fiber blades and has spent the past the last 6 years fighting to be allowed to run in “able bodied” races as well as the Paralympic events. This culminated in his appearance for the South African team at the 2012 Olympics.

As prosthetic limbs improve and other physical enhancements arrive, rules will continue to change for many sports to accommodate advances and ensure that they are legally and equally accessible by all competitors. These advances and rule changes may accelerate the breaking of previous sporting records.

So, of course it’s shocking and disappointing that Armstrong used performance enhancers to steal titles from his rivals. But, rogue competitors aside, the unmistakable winner in the performance enhancement story – is humanity.